In the air tonight

Academic 2009. With Jordi Parra and Benjamín López

Explorations on the relationships between sound, form, and air.

Explorations on the relationships between sound, form, and air.

This 6-day project was part of the 5-week ‘sound course’ at Umeå Institute of Design. Our class was divided in four groups of 3 people, and all groups had to tackle a specific subject—medium, tactility, light, and in our case, air—, associate it to both a physical form and sound in an abstract manner. This small but very intense project culminated with a small exhibition in UID’s very posh ‘red room’.


Here’s a video demonstration of the In the air tonight ‘air + sound’ capsules in action.


Our team’s goal was that the participants of the In the air tonight installation would be able to mold and modulate sound by altering—and playing with—the volume of the air surrounding the suspended sound capsules with both of their hands. In a very simple and almost graphical manner, we wanted to demonstrate with this experimental installation the importance of the relation and interrelations between people, air, and sound.

In terms perhaps more poetical, we wanted the participants to feel the ‘wind’ of the sound on the palm of their hands and see how they—and the other people that are in the installation’s space—react to the sounds they are creating in a live context.

3 apd dudes

Three visitors during the public exhibition at UID.


The idea behind physical form of the In the air tonight capsules was to channel the wind that is generated through old computer fans through a tighter hole, therefore amplifying it’s velocity. Aside from functionality, we had the desire for a very simple and ‘neutral’ form that form that would not attract (too much) attention.

Some LEDs were built it the form to attract the eye’s attention. Since the installation occurs in a dark room, the two In the air tonight capsules will represent the most prominent light sources in the space in which they will be installed. In doing so, they will augment the visual focus on their surrounding space, inciting people to interact with them.


The capsules were constituted of 2 vacuum-formed styrene pieces (white outer shell) and laser-cutted acrylic (transparent center). Half a dozen white LEDs were inserted in the acrylic pieces.

Technologies used

First iteration of our prototype: presswood box with holes (and proximity sensors) in it.

Trying to figure out Max/MSP (and how to connect it with Arduino and a motion sensor).

Our die on the lathe. (photo credit: Jordi Parra)

Assembly and wiring. Notice the computer fans (black boxes).

To be able to digitally generate, but more importantly, modulate sound in real-time, the use of professional audio software was required. But first, we needed to figure out what technology we could use to enable the participants to modulate sound (volume, tempo, pitch, etc.) easily and intuitively.

After evaluating the panoply of options that laid before us, we opted for the usage of Max/MSP as our main sound manipulating software, mainly because of it’s ease-of-use and because some very kind people in the open-source community created a library that enables Max/MSP to ‘talk’ with Arduino (an electronics prototyping platform) seamlessly.

The strategy then became to wire motion sensors to an Arduino board, that would itself be wired to a computer. The motion sensors detect the movements of the participants hands and send values to the computer (and to the Max/MSP software) that uses them to modulate and output the sound.

An infra-red motion sensor. Behind the sensors are located repurposed computer fans so that the people can literally feel the air.

The (not so) backstage part of our installation: computers running Max/MSP, Arduinos, mixing board, loudspeakers, and wires, wires, wires…

About the name of the project

The project was named after the greatest rock-and-roll song of all time (ahem!): In the air tonight, by rock god Phil Collins.